Outsider Art

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Model for a Hotel 2007, Thomas Schutte, 2007/All Photos: LACAYO

It’s summer and the weather is generally ok, so I’ve been going outside a lot at lunch for fresh air, sunshine and the chance to check out big, enigmatic chunks of public art. In London last week I finally got a look at Model for a Hotel 2007, a sculpture by the German artist Thomas Schutte that has occupied the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square since last November. (The Fourth Plinth is that pedestal where the Brits put various new works of public art.)

Schutte’s Hotel is a sort of jaunty maquette for an imaginary proposed building. (Over the years he’s done a number of these “models”.) It’s made from transparent plates of red, blue and yellow glass stacked like bookshelves. Among the gray stone edifices of Trafalgar Square, the opaque weight of the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column, it’s conspicuously light, transparent and colorful. And with its High Modernist/Russian Constructivist resoluteness, that hygenic simplicity of its lines, I assume it’s meant as a mock emblem of contemporary happiness, the hotel as bourgeois paradise, though it’s hard to be sure.

In that connection it reminded me a bit of Electric Fountain, the piece by the British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster that was up at Rockefeller Center in New York for a few months this past winter and spring. It was, just as advertised, a big steel sculpture made to resemble the gushing cascades of a fountain, with blue neon tubing and sequenced electric lights to imitate the flow of water. It had a cheesy Vegas merriment, and as with Schutte’s piece, it was hard to know whether its power to charm was being mocked or celebrated. Probably both. Too bad it was set on a clunky gray concrete base that diminished the effect. The comment you heard about it most often was: “They do it better in Vegas”.

There’s a much better piece at Rockefeller Center now. (Though it’s also on a clunky gray concrete base.) Chris Burden’s What My Dad Gave Me is a giant erector set tower, 65 feet tall, a classic Minimalist box that’s also a madly inflated fantasy from childhood. From a distance, it’s a phallic daddy tower.

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What My Dad Gave Me, Chris Burden, 2008

But get closer, and it’s full of beckoning tunnels, psychologically intricate spaces, sparkling but intimidating, that undermine the monolithic impression it creates from further back. Daddy has his dark side. Or maybe it’s Chris Burden who does. (Chris Burden — now there’s a name straight out of Faulkner.)

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But stand back again and look up. The whole thing seems to dematerialize into the sunlight, very much a boy’s dream of power and glory.

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I’ve been looking at Burden’s work for decades and he remains a guy impossible to classify. But it would be fair to say he has a recurring fascination with power that links his notorious early performance works — being shot in the arm, nailed to a Volkswagen, etc. — with this ambiguous tower. In the 1980s he did an unforgettable piece that I saw in a gallery in Soho. It consisted of a large flywheel, about eight feet tall, mounted on a stand. From time to time somebody would back up a motorcycle against it and rev the engine. The motorcycle wheel would set the flywheel turning at high speed. Touch that thing and it would take your hand off. It wasn’t just a representation of power. It was power itself, in the room, as the thing to behold.

I wonder what exactly it was that his dad gave him?

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